Tech UPTechnologyToday very few ask, like Macbeth, ''What is night?''....

Today very few ask, like Macbeth, ''What is night?''. The electric light has taken away that feeling of danger that the night has, but also the fascination for the magical and mysterious that hides in the shadows.

No other time of day has so many words to describe the arrival of night. The Irish, for example, use up to four different terms to name the different intervals of time between sunset and sunset. What we have not been freed from at any time is imagining a night air full of monsters. Nyx, born of Chaos, was the goddess of the night, who, according to Homer in the Iliad, was feared even by Zeus himself. In Babylon, the inhabitants of the desert suffered from the attacks of Lilith; the Romans feared the nocturnal flights of the strix, the owl, which they believed ate the intestines of children; and in the Palestinian desert the inhabitants of Qumran were terrified by the angel of darkness. On the other side of the world, in Tahiti, the painter Paul Gauguin discovered that Polynesian women never slept in the dark. In the middle of the 20th century, the Navajo took refuge from the nocturnal demons, just as the natives of Mailu Island, Papua New Guinea, did. In African cultures, the Yoruba and Ibo of Nigeria and the Ewé of Dahomey and Togoland believe that spirits take on the appearance of witches at night, sowing misfortune and death wherever they pass. The night is, a Venetian author wrote in the 17th century, “like the face of hell.”

In early medieval texts they never speak of the night in a positive way or in a spiritual sense, but rather in terms of danger and harm. The only way to combat this fear of what moves at night has been through the use of artificial lighting: this was done by the Egyptians, Sumerians, Greeks, Romans… even in the depths of the caves of Lascaux, in the French Palaeolithic, the remains of a hundred lamps have been found: “diabolical spirits do not like the smell of lamps,” Plato wrote. “Without candles everything would be horror” said a religious meditation from the 16th century.

Of course, violence has always been part of the nocturnal landscape : “the night knows no remorse”, said an old proverb. The highwaymen, nightwalkers in England, rôdeurs de nuit in France or the andatores di notte in Italy, show how unsafe the roads were at night. A visitor to France stated that “if you get robbed on the road you will lose your money and your life”. In the rural world, gangs made up of half a dozen men were common: in France there were the chauffeurs , who tortured families with fire. The cities were also not safe after dark: at the end of the 16th century, Madrilenians rarely felt safe on the streets at night. The fear of assaults in one’s own home meant that the houses in Madrid had iron doors and bars on the windows. A 16th-century visitor wrote that they seemed to him “more like a prison than the rooms of free people”.

Of course, if there is an activity that calls for the night, it is that of sexual matters . In the Middle Ages, sexuality was considered only as a transgression of the moral norms established by the Church, but at no time was anything obscene or dirty. Of all of them we can highlight the supposedly oldest trade in the world: prostitution. It was not prohibited, quite the opposite, to the point that in most of south-eastern France there was a public brothel run by the municipal authorities. Moreover, the brothel was built with public money and was leased to an ‘abbess’ or a manager who recruited the girls, after being accepted by the justice officer. On the other hand, it is not true that the prostitutes were vagrants and foreigners: in general they used to be women from the region and only 15% were passing through, following adventurers. In general, the prostitute started working at the age of 17. The cause? A fourth part because of rape and another fourth part was introduced by their own family. Only 15% entered on their own initiative, without any type of coercion or as a result of poverty.

There is no doubt that sleep is the first need of the night. Contrary to what we might believe, pre-industrial Europeans did not fly to their beds as soon as it got dark and stayed there until the sun broke the horizon. In reality, segmented sleep occurred: most experienced two intervals of sleep. The first began at sunset and lasted several hours. It was followed by a waking interval of an hour or so and a second sleep until dawn. The time between dreams was devoted to prayer, conversation, intimacy or housework .

They also worked at night. In Hamburg the work activity of merchants, apprentices, artisans and domestic service began at 6 in the morning, regardless of the time of sunrise. People normally had breakfast at night and started working or attended religious services.

It was at the end of the 17th century that the start of almost all work was delayed by two hours. In the cities work started at 7 and ended at 10 at night. Of course there were purely night jobs, such as bakers, who started their shift between 11:30 p.m. and 2:30 a.m. Furthermore, there is a record of a baker who, together with his assistants, worked from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m. By contrast, other work was prohibited at night. In Paris in the mid-13th century, goldsmiths could not work at night because the lack of light did not allow them to do their work well… and without cheating.

Little by little, throughout the 18th century, daily life became “nocturnalized” and merchants traveled all night to be able to supply the cities in the morning. Of course this was another matter. The poor visibility and the poor layout of the roads made walking at night a risky sport (not to mention the danger of being robbed). Isaac Watts of the 17th century recommended that travelers “keep an eye out for the faint shadows of the night”, especially if one left the taverns with a few pints of beer too many. Falling into a hole or hole was not unusual, nor was going headlong into the river in cities like Paris or London. That’s when they weren’t urinating in the streets: in 1720 the Duchess of Orleans complained that the unpaved streets of Paris were a river of piss. And a 17th-century Madrilenian declared that “every day the streets are perfumed by more than 10,000 turds.” You had to tread carefully at night.


Verdon, J. (1994) La nuit au Moyen Âge, Perrin

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